A few days before the holiday break, I stumbled in to the middle of one of the most cliche situations that can occur in a public school. A colleague was teaching a geometry lesson (or maybe a trigonometry lesson) to a group of less-than-enthused students. One of the students asked the classic “when am I ever going to need to know how to do this?”
Reacting instinctually, I popped in to the room and together with my colleague spewed off a list of various real-life situations where geometric/trigonometric knowledge could come in handy. This is, of course, the classic response mode for this particular question. In this way, the students, my colleague, and I reenacted a scene that has played out in various forms since the inception of compulsory education in this country. And while our response was classical in style, it was only after I left the room that I realized that we had gone about handling the situation in the wrong way entirely. Not that we shouldn’t have addressed the complaint, but that we should have addressed the complaint from a completely different approach. It seems to me that the best answer to the “when am I ever going to need to know how to do <x>?” is not a direct response, but instead it should go something like this:
"Why should it matter?"
For all of the issues that exist in education in this country, we still have a system that feels that everyone from age 5 to 18 should be given a large span of each year to learn stuff for the sake of learning stuff. We can argue about how this happens, and the reasons why this system was established, but at the end of that argument, we’re still providing our school age population with the opportunity to learn a host of things without requiring any sort of application of that knowledge in any sort of practical sphere. It’s important to take a moment and understand just how unique an opportunity that is. There are many places on this Earth where the entirety of the youth is not given such a luxury.
So, this is how I’ll be answering this question from this point forward. I won’t reel off the list of ways that the education a student is receiving will be to their practical benefit (though, certainly there are many). Mostly, students who are asking this question are pretty primed to not see the benefits even if they are made clear. Instead, I’ll point out that students in our system have the chance to learn for the sake of learning, without worrying about how it will benefit them now or in the future, and encourage learners to understand just how unique they are to be in such a position. I don’t imagine this change in argument will make much of a difference, but at least I won’t feel like I’m having the same conversation that has been had since the beginning of time.